At this point in history the superhero “origin story” is about as welcome as head lice or burning your tongue on hot coffee. From the turgid “Suicide Squad” to “Green Lantern’s” uninspired story and the below average “The Fantastic Four,” just to name a few, comic book movies have offered up enough colourful folklore to make Greek mythology seem positively uneventful by comparison. Trouble is, they are often bogged down by their own mythology, crushed under the weight of dead parents, mysterious cosmic rays, fateful choices and magical benefactors.
The odd one gets it right. “Batman Begins,” “Deadpool,” “Iron Man” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” all kicked off their franchises with style and I’m happy to add “Wonder Woman” to that short list.
The story of Diana, the Amazonian princess who becomes Wonder Woman, actually began at the end of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” She was a woman who “walked away from mankind” only to be drawn back into the saving-of-humanity business.
The new film, directed by Patty Jenkins, recounts Diana’s (played by Lilly Aspell and Emily Carey as a preteen and teen) childhood on the secluded paradise island of Themyscira. Inhabited by Amazons, a race of women who helped Zeus fight off a coup by his treacherous son, the war god Ares, the isle is a retreat from the horrors of the world. Led by Diana’s mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), the all-female society trains in all manner of hand-to-hand combat, preparing for the return of Ares. “It’s our sacred duty to protect the world,” she says.
Meanwhile, in the outside world, World War I rages on. The Amazon’s worst fears are realised when the planet’s unrest comes to Themyscira in the form of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a US military pilot who crashes a plane into the waters just offshore of Diana’s (played as an adult by Gal Gadot) home. Rescued by the warrior princess—he’s the first man she’s ever seen—the fallen pilot tells Diana about the war and a new chemical weapon being developed by the Germans. Convinced the conflict is the work of Ares, Diana decamps from the only home she’s ever known to London, then the heart of the action, the Western Front. “Be careful in the world of men Diana,” says Hippolyta, “they do not deserve you.”
“Wonder Woman” is the first major studio superhero film directed by a woman and the first female lead superhero movie since Jennifer Garner’s “Electra” twelve years ago. The success of director Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman,” both artistically and financially (at the time of this writing the film is tracking to make $175 million globally) should guarantee we won’t have to wait until another Bush is president until we see another one.
Equal parts Amazon sword and sandal epic, mad scientist flick, war movie and rom com, it’s a crowd pleaser that places the popular character front and centre. As played by Gadot, Diana is charismatic and kick ass, a superhero who is both truly super and heroic. Like Superman she is firmly on the side of good, not a tortured soul à la Batman. Naïve to the ways of the world, she runs headfirst into trouble. Whether she’s throwing a German tank across a battlefield, defying gravity to leap to the top of a bell tower, tolerating Trevor’s occasional mansplaining or deflecting bullets with her indestructible Bracelets of Submission, she proves in scene after scene to be both a formidable warrior and a genuine, profoundly empathic character.
The action scenes are cool. The Lasso of Truth sequences look like a glow-in-the-dark Cirque du Soleil scarf dance and the iconic Wonder Woman battle poses placed against the terrible beauty of World War I frontlines are stunners, but it’s ultimately her strength of character that keeps the movie interesting. Even the prerequisite CGI overkill at the end is made palatable by her potent message that only love can save the world. It’s a welcome and refreshing change from the deep, dark pit the DC movies seem to have fallen into of late.
“Wonder Woman” works because it maintains a human core in a fantastical good vs. evil story. As Diana’s understanding of heroism and mankind deepens, so does the movie. As she questions authority and man’s capacity for cruelty there are several very funny moments—her “How can a woman possibly fight in this?” routine at Selfridge’s clothing department is very funny—and action galore, but Jenkins wisely and wonderfully keeps the character true to her self confident, mythic comic book roots.